The White House’s ‘ironic’ Mao moment? Glenn Beck doesn’t get it.

You just knew the Anita Dunn-Glenn Beck feud would involve Socrates and Seinfeld, didn't you?

Susan Walsh/AP
White House communications director Anita Dunn.

A week after White House communications director Anita Dunn declared “war” on Fox News, Glenn Beck, the feisty libertarian Fox personality, is taking Ms. Dunn on personally over what can now officially be described as her “Mao moment.”

On Thursday, Mr. Beck aired a high school commencement address from June where Ms. Dunn listed Mao -- responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese during the Cultural Revolution -- as one of her “favorite political philosophers,” alongside Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Dunn, a long-time Washington strategist, surprised many by singling out Fox as a public relations arm of the Republican Party last weekend. She said on Friday that her Mao comments were obviously “ironic” and that she had lifted the reference from the late and legendary Republican strategist Lee Atwater.

Yes, a lot of this is personal between Fox and Dunn.

Yet perhaps we get a tiny bit of new insight into America’s political divide from the Mao affair. Perhaps the standoff is less about left and right, socialists versus libertarians, and more about ironic speech versus direct speech.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that irony is "a figure of speech in which the unintended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used."

The Yale- and Harvard-educated denizens of the White House surely are as familiar with irony as Seinfeld is, using it as a way to signal “I get it” without being too earnest. Fox viewers seem more interested in getting the straight dope, without the varnish.

This argument goes back only a few thousand years. Socrates, for one, saw the value of irony to gain greater insight into the truth. Yet irony, as the political scientist Jane Bennett has argued, can threaten politics by diluting moral indignation.

Indeed, the Greeks might have envisioned a latter-day Beck when they coined the term parrhesia, or “frank-speech,” as a method to favor truth over oratory to convince the audience.

“Socrates values truth above all, but the way to encourage one’s fellow citizens … to share that concern is to not be strictly truthful with them,” Mount Holyoke political scientist Elizabeth Markovits writes in an essay. “The use of irony, long thought of as intentionally deceptive, is specifically deployed to awaken people from their stupor and take control of their lives as democrats. In our own contemporary political life, where we praise ‘straight talkers,’ and Bill O’Reilly has a top-rated news program, we should hope for a great ironist rather than praise [irony’s] death.”

Still, the extent of Dunn’s irony as it pertains to Mao is certainly up for debate. Her reference to Mao and Mother Teresa as “political philosophers” could certainly be seen as an ironic statement.

Also in the clip, she claims to think of Mao “all the time." Ironic? Hard to tell.

But she can’t be all that great of a Mao scholar, argues the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman.

The concept she credited to Mao -- “You fight your war and I’ll fight mine” -- is actually a misreading of Mao’s belief that “if you can win, you fight; if you cannot win, you don’t fight,” according to University of Pennsylvania China scholar Arthur Waldron, as quoted by Mr. Chapman.

Peter Wehner, a former George W. Bush policy adviser, doesn’t let Dunn off so easy for quoting one of the 20th century’s greatest villains: “Her praise for Mao -- unqualified and without caveats, based on the excerpts of her speech -- is quite extraordinary,” Mr. Wehner writes. “For a senior member of the White House to hold these views is more extraordinary still.”


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